At times, mindful parenting a child with exceptionalities is an exercise in frustration. When you’re struggling to understand what your child is communicating through language and behavior you may wonder if there is a piece of the parent-child connection puzzle that you missed. This is especially true when your child is exhibiting challenging behavior, says Ashley Musial, M.Ed., who is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Licensed Behavior Analyst and owner of ChildFirst Behavior Therapy in Arlington Heights — as well as the mom to six sons, one with autism spectrum disorder.
“When you are working hard to build a relationship with your child with autism, you’re also preparing ahead to meet your child where they are in the moment, especially when things get hard,” Musial explains. She suggests focusing on the present moment with your child as much as you can, whenever you can.
Through a mindful present-moment parenting approach, you’re establishing yourself as a long-term resource for your child, she says. “Ultimately, you want to be the person your child will come to when they need help. One way to do that is by turning difficult moments into enriching moments.”
But how does this work? When you may be struggling to just move from one parenting situation to the next, how do you remain mindful so that you can help your child move through the most challenging moments?
Reading between the lines
As a parent of a child with exceptionalities, you can probably think of examples of routine situations where it seems that you and your child are working at cross purposes. Some of these cases even escalate to involve very challenging behaviors.
When, for example, your child has created an elaborate pretend play situation that they’re completely wrapped up in, your simple act of calling your child to join you in an impromptu trip to get ice cream can completely backfire and result in loud protestations from your child. You’re offering something nice to your child and they make it clear that they have different plans.
Miscommunication and misunderstanding are often at the heart of the situation, Musial says.
“If your child has developed language, you can often take for granted that they are giving you enough information and insight for you to understand what they are thinking and planning,” Musial says. “So, when you offer something safe that the whole family will enjoy, like ice cream, only to have your child screaming at the top of his lungs, you know there’s something more going on.”
That moment can play out one of two ways, Musial says. “In your frustration, you can let rigidity run your day, or you can take the extra time in the moment to help shape the future of those responses. You can establish yourself as a resource for your child,” she says. In the ice cream example, you can help your child problem solve so that everyone’s needs are met.
“By being a listener and by validating your child’s feelings, you can also model appropriate tone and volume rather than going down the road of how ungrateful he may be acting and how he is wreaking havoc on the house at that point,” Musial explains. “You can give your child choices and options and that doesn’t change the fact that the family will be getting ice cream. It may be about spending the extra time to recognize that you don’t need to leave for ice cream at that precise moment.”
If you take the time to recognize that you are missing information, you may be able to help your child better express their intentions, even if this comes in tiny bite-sized pieces. “It may feel like a mountain in the moment, but you can climb that mountain one step at a time,” Musial says. “By using good listening skills, you can pick up and interpret, even if your child speaks in riddles.”
In general, the more you talk to and interact with your child — during the easy, neutral and difficult times — the easier it becomes to read between the lines.
“Don’t give up because even though these moments feel like drops in the ocean, eventually you start to make a puddle and then a little wave, and it all comes together,” Musial says. “If you practice being present only once in a while, you won’t see the benefits. You have to be committed to their ongoing development.”
How to make it happen
If a strong relationship with your child is part of your value system, you recognize parenting means more than providing the basics. Help your child see you as someone who can provide good things, and you’ll become a resource as you build a better understanding of what your child needs.
“This happens early,” Musial says, adding that children are adept at figuring out who can best get their needs met, whether food, toys or attention.
“Be on your child’s eye level. Get down on the ground with your small child and show you are attending to them and that you are there. We often miss this and we don’t get into their world and it’s easier for kids on the spectrum to miss the social piece,” Musial says. By always being close, you can catch an eye gaze and pick up on your child’s needs more readily.
Consider your child’s behavior as their way of communicating in methods beyond verbal or nonverbal. “We don’t always consider communication to be gestures, pointing and walking toward what they want, but all of these are things you are more likely to see happen when you are in close proximity and on eye level,” she says.
When you are consistent with this early and continual work of being present in the moment with your child, the benefits can pay off in dividends. “You want to equip your child with skills to sustain them during the difficult times and you also want them to come to you,” Musial says. “A big part of that resilience is having a support system and you want to be one of those people in their life that they can lean on.”
Learn more about Progressive ABA Therapy at ChildFirst Behavior Therapy by visiting childfirstbehaviortherapy.com.